Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Malaysia diary 9: Kuala Lumpur

As I write this on the top floor of the Bidara Condominium in Bukit Bintang (Bintang Hill), KL is begrudgingly getting a few drops of rain, the first in a couple of weeks. Certainly we haven't felt the wetting effects of anything other than our own sweat out and about the few days we've been here. Our travels through Malaysia have been, at times, torrid, in terms of humidity. Although we live in Brisbane where things get fairly humid, you can usually hide away from the worst of it like a cat in the shade of a verandah or a web developer in a Queensland Health office. But in the big Malaysian supermarket of experiences, we feel like we have to shop till we drop.

(In Part 8, we got driven around the Cameron Highlands, into a magical mossy forest, and had the steamboat everyone says you should have when you're there.)

Bukit Bintang view, KL
Bukit Bintang view, KL.

Our two weeks in Malaysia have almost come to an end. A decent four-day coda here in Kuala Lumpur and that's it. So far the smog we constantly were warned about, as if there was anything we could do about it, hasn't been much in evidence. With today's sightseeing over with, we're back in the condo. I could go down to the pool on the 2nd floor now and join Tina and the boys but if I want to be a writer, something's gotta give. Going to the pool now has to give. I surrender to writing.

After two mercifully cool days (mid-20s centigrade) in Tanah Rata, we endured a four-hour coach trip down off the Cameron Highlands, descending from the mountainous north-south spine that runs from the Thai border down to KL, which wound for a full 90 minutes past frequent roadside workers' shanties and occasional waterfalls too quickly-passed to photograph, until finally, with bladders and Alexander's sick bag to empty, we reached the western coastal plain.

Yep, Al’s a barfer: he pukes on planes and he pukes on coaches. With planes it’s because his fussiness, paradoxically, makes his stomach cast out, much like one of the sacred volcanos of Bali we were probably in the proximity of at the time, to an uncaring world what precious little it has, the only means at its disposal to protest against the oral blockade. This always spoils a good eight-hour budget airlines flight for us, but we’re used to it. With coaches it’s motion sickness. This descent from the highlands was one I respected for its potential to make me sick too, holding off from reading, and admiring those seasoned co-travellers with their heads down, headphones in, browsing the Lonely Planet KL section. A straight run in on the highway meant we could all read again, although practically within sight of our terminus, Pudu Sentral, Al hurled for the second time. He's a game little traveller though: he knows the drill with the bag at this stage.

Jalan Alor
"Eat Street" - Jalan Alor.

Up at 6 next morning, I pulled open the curtains and looked out over the low-rise restaurants and corner shops beholding not a nitrogen-blue Greek sky, but not a wall of haze either. Well, that's a plus: we can see the neighbourhood. I became fond of the conservative old Capitol building (in the left in the photo at top) a few blocks away, a throwback to a time when flamboyance was expressed by a slight enlargement of the windows of the topmost floors. Nowadays every new skyscraper squawks its individuality like a chook on the chopping block. But not the Capitol.

We had found this Bukit Bintang pied-à-terre on Airbnb. Unlike most places on that site, it's not a residence that the owner lives in. In fact, I don't get the impression that this condo unit is anything other than permanently given over to renting out to pelancong dari Australia, tourists like us. I'm delighted though, as it gives us a flavour of being in KL à la bourgeois Malaysian. Bigger than a hotel room we could afford, and having just the right amount of lived-in wear so you don't feel you have to be too precious about the kids on the furniture. God bless America, God bless Airbnb.

That night, sporting our crisp new Langkawi batik gear, we did battle with the heat on our local centre of gravity, Jalan Alor, the road-long foodcourt also known as 'Eat Street'. "Sudah makanan!". "Already eaten!" A lie, of course. I didn't care, they were magic words that got the menu-toting young guns harassing us every few yards to back off with a sweet smile. Now I know how my kids feel every night, harangued relentlessly to eat. You have to marvel though at the stripped down Malay/English these guys use. Since we're travelling with kids, we often end up asking whether kuai teow goreng, which is the Malaysian for char kuai teow, is spicy or not.
"Spicy can, not spicy can!"
I love Chinglish, Singlish, or Manglish, whatever it's called here in Malaysia.

Jalan Alor
Hawker stall, Jalan Alor.

The kids spotted something on one of the stalls' menus which set us back in our quest to have them see Asian street food in a friendly light. Menu guy spotted us.
"Spicy frog porridge, very good pak!"
'Pak' is short for bapak, which means 'sir'. You'll hear it in situations involving restaurants and taxis. But we shan't be having the frog porridge today, makasih. For the second time in a day, we ended up in Restoran Nagasari, extremely cheap and cheerful. On this holiday, the liquid part of the meal, Guinness or Tiger, has always been the most expensive. Without Guinness or Tiger our meals would be a downright steal. But it's not a corner I'm prepared to cut, and Tina respects this, in the sense that she knows it, but by no means considers it respectable.

Traveller tip: acquaint yourself with the nearest 'landmark' - read big - hotel. Don't expect your average supir teksi to know every condo in KL. I know, it’s obvious. But it’s funny how it always takes you a while to remember the obvious things. They'll know the big hotels of course. Like mobile phone UI designers, give your punters big fat targets to hit. Actually, the taxi drivers are better here than in Australia: quaintly, they seem to know the lay of the land in their head, something you're not guaranteed to encounter in Brisbane or Sydney. And Melburnian taxi drivers are a breed unto themselves in terms of sheer, blank-faced ignorance, from what I read.

A taxi to the condo we're staying at cost us RM15. In fact every teksi trip we get here will end up costing that amount, funnily. The taxis say on their door that they're metered, and by law they have to be, but the drivers must just find that so mechanistic, so depressingly deterministic, that they ask you where you want to go and, with a hard-won knowledge of the topography of KL that could never be gainsaid by no stinkin’ meter, come up with a price of 15 ringgits, always. "Selamat jalan!"

Foolin' around, foodcourt, KL
Foodcourt, Bukit Bintang Plaza

A few days in, and I feel like I'm adjusting to the rhythm of Kuala Lumpur, if only by tripping up over one less broken piece of pavement on Jalan Bedara every time I leave the condo. The familiar faces of the guys tending the woks in the kedai makanans around the corner on Jalan Nagasari, the bored girl in the window of the corner shop, even some of the menu guys on Jalan Alor, are all emerging as individuals, and will no doubt pop into my head some day in the future, maybe at my desk in the office waiting for my web project to compile, or triggered by a phrase in a book on a Sunday afternoon that has nothing whatsoever to do with Kuala Lumpur.

Of course it's tough foregoing the relief of the swimming pool, but there are plenty of them in Brisbane. Far better to write while my memory of events is fresh, while I can still remember the bits and pieces of words and phrases that I've heard out and about. The mighty tide of Chinglish sweeps us all up, and the language aficionado has to adapt to it on every excursion. The question is: are you ready to order now?
"Order-lah sekarang, pak?"